Last season ended in a shocking Finals comeback by the Cavaliers over the favorite Warriors. Down 3-1, LeBron James added to his growing legend by willing the team back, giving Cleveland the Championship he could not deliver during his first stay with the team.
After a 73-9 regular season record, beating the 1995-96 Bulls’ record, the Warriors were still unable to repeat as Champions. With this new desire to improve the team, the Warriors went out and signed former MVP Kevin Durant away from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Every team seems to be chasing the Cavaliers and Warriors now, with the Spurs and Celtics adding high-profile players to try to keep up.
Russell Westbrook, Durant’s former teammate and sidekick, now holds the reins for the Thunder. Many predict he will explode in leading the team back up the Western conference standings.
This league-shaking offseason makes this season more interesting than most, as new teams and players will rise to stardom and prominence. With this context in mind, here are my picks for which teams and players will dominate the NBA landscape this season.
Top five teams –
NBA Champions: Golden State Warriors – Unless serious chemistry issues arise, this team just seems too stacked to lose in a seven game series. Their regular season record may not be as strong as last year’s record-breaking 73-9, but if healthy they will turn it up a notch in the playoffs. This team has four All-Pros in its starting lineup, the most on one team in NBA history.
Most Valuable Player: Russell Westbrook – With the team now completely on his shoulders, Westbrook takes his game to historic levels. His game involves more heart than nearly any other superstar, pushing him to prove that the Thunder can remain relevant without Durant. Durant, a former MVP himself, will take away votes from two-time defending MVP Stephen Curry, allowing Westbrook to run away with the award.
Most Improved Player: Nikola Jokic – After a strong rookie season a year ago, Jokic starred for the Serbian national team in the Olympics over the summer. On a Denver squad looking for a star to emerge, Jokic could grab the reins and become the face of the franchise for years to come.
Comeback Player of the Year: Eric Gordon – A few years ago after averaging more than 22 points a game for the Clippers, Gordon was the centerpiece in the Chris Paul blockbuster trade. He has failed to live up to the billing since then, but now finds himself on a team that encourages high volume shooting and free flowing offense, the perfect match for a player of his abilities.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert – With one of the best defensive squads in the league, many pundits are picking the Jazz to take a big step forward in the Western conference. Gobert is their defensive anchor and they will need him to continue to improve if they hope to challenge the elite teams.
Rookie of the Year: Joel Embiid – If Ben Simmons entered the year heathy, he would be the runaway favorite here. But after breaking a bone in his right foot, optimistic projections have him coming back in January. 76ers fans do not need to worry though, as a different one of their high-profile rookie big men could take home the award. Embiid was once considered as a potentially all-time great at the center position, and seems to be fully healthy and ready to go for a Philadelphia team that will give him many touches.
Sixth Man of the Year: Enes Kanter – With an offensive vacuum left behind in Durant’s place, Kanter will get many more touches than last year. Toward the end of close games, he will be counted on to score big buckets. In a lineup in desperate need of more scoring options, Kanter steps up and wins the Sixth Man award.
Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens – The Celtics continue to hold onto a host of future draft picks that originally belonged to other teams, while also finding ways to win big now. This is largely thanks to the masterful coaching of their young mastermind, as Stevens is widely considered one of the better coaches in the league. Adding new star Al Horford to the mix will help Stevens lead the Celtics back to the top of NBA basketball.